Superheroes have traditionally been about wish-fulfillment. Bumbling Clark Kent is really the invincible Superman, nerdy Peter Parker is the amazing Spider-Man, the weak and puny Bruce Banner is the Incredible Hulk, and so on. The idea goes that a young male audience reading this kind of story can imagine that they are the hero, that they have secret hidden powers, and that they could best those that bully or humiliate them and win the respect and admiration of their peers. Although the art and plots have improved and got more sophisticated, this central idea has often remained the same.
The hero, switching to their super-powered guise, goes out and deals with threats to the established order, usually by punching them in the face. The villains, representing chaos, or an alternative to the current situation, are the active instigators of the plot. The heroes are passive, reacting to deal with threats until the status quo is restored.
There are other types of story out there, and plenty of writers with ideas beyond the pedestrian, but in comic-book-land, especially in the vast area dominated by Marvel and DC, you have to work hard to find them. There are only so many times you can read this basic plot before you get tired of it, and yearn for something different. Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol is certainly different. If you’re not familiar with them, the Doom Patrol share many similarities with the X-Men; seen as a collection of super-powered freaks by a world that hates and fears them, conceived in the 1960s, and led by a brainy guy in a wheelchair.
Most people have heard of the X-Men, who have achieved worldwide fame, but fewer are familiar with the Doom Patrol. The latter is not a rip-off of the former; if anything it is likely the other way around, as the Doom Patrol came first, although they still, somewhat fittingly, languish in obscurity. The X-Men, supposedly outcasts, are all young, attractive, and ridiculously buff. They look cool, and with the odd exception like Rogue, have awesome powers and then constantly whine about it (I’m looking at you Cyclops).
Marvel tried to address this later on by introducing new weirder characters like Marrow and Maggot – it’s harder to make excessive bone growth and telepathically controlled giant slugs sexy – but this always felt like a bolt-on, as the main characters would ripple with muscles, strut their shapely legs, toss back their perfect silky smooth hair, and then, more often than not, go on a woe-is-me diatribe.
Arguably this in effect makes X-Men another type of wish-fulfillment, of the ‘have your cake and eat it’ kind. The reader can empathise with their supposed status as outcasts and unrecognised heroes, while also imagine themselves as beautiful and stylish. The Doom Patrol, on the other hand, are a strange looking bunch and are genuinely marginalised. If X-Men are the cover of a trendy fashion magazine, then Doom Patrol are Fortean Times. Outcasts with relatable problems, the Doom Patrol’s identities are often in flux, or outside of their control.
After his car crash, Robotman is a brain trapped in a mechanical body, unable to experience a sensation of any kind, and filled with frustrated rage. Disconnected from his body, he can’t feel anything, and the impact of the accident still haunts him. Rebis, previously the Negative Man, is a fusion of a white man and a black woman in the same physical form and is able to leave its body behind to become pure energy.
Crazy Jane is a woman whose old identity has been shattered. She now has 64 separate personalities, all with their own superpower. In fiction, the multiple personality thing has been done to death, despite how rare it is in real life. It’s often misrepresented as an axe-crazy psycho hiding inside someone’s head, ready to go a-choppin’ if the wrong identity pops into the driving seat. Here though, Crazy Jane’s character is less about her going… well, crazy, and more an examination of post-traumatic stress and the impact of child abuse. Her personalities are coping mechanisms. She is a vulnerable, fragile character, but also the team’s most capable member.
Dorothy Skinner, an ape-like teenage girl, is haunted by the manifestations of her own nightmares, forces she can’t control, and a world that mocks and ridicules her. Joshua Clay, despite having somewhat boring superpowers (flight and energy blasts) prefers not to use them and functions instead as the team medic and only sane man. Stable and sensible, he serves to keep the team grounded. The Chief, a muttering bearded intellectual misanthrope, cajoles, bribes and threatens the others into doing his bidding. Cold, unfeeling, and emotionally distant, he manipulates those around him and is often underestimated. He unites the group but ultimately acts in his own interest.
None of these characters fit in, and their stories are not all about ‘find the bad thing and hit in’, but about their journey to try and understand, explain, and control – with limited success – the cacophony of strange and nonsensical things going on around them. Their shared status as outsiders brings them together, but their differences can just as easily drive them apart. The characters feel realistic. Although they are mostly sympathetic, many have unpleasant qualities and struggle to get along with each other.
Initially, the team operates much like other superheroes, going out and dealing with threats in the realm of the weird, defeating enemies like the Scissormen, who cut things out of reality, or a being claiming to be both the Devil and Jack the Ripper by releasing his captured butterflies. Soon, however, the team meets opponents they aren’t so sure need defeating. A group of surreal super-beings led by Mr. Nobody, called The Brotherhood of Dada, trap Paris inside a painting, and later go on a presidential election campaign in a psychedelic bus that causes hallucinations. Many of the Doom Patrol question whether Mr. Nobody and his buddies are actually the bad guys, given that the repressive forces representing the government seem just as bad, if not worse.
Robotman enters Crazy Jane’s mind, represented by an underground train network. The team rescues a sentient transvestite street called Danny, who is under attack from the self-appointed defenders of ‘normality’, led by a hideous 1960s sitcom horror-husband. The imaginary friends of a little boy face off against sinister entities under The Pentagon.
In one of my favourite stories two villains – a talking revolutionary gorilla called Monsieur Mallah, and The Brain, a literal brain in a jar – ambush Robotman while his brain is being swapped into a new body. The Brain quickly highjacks the new body, and he and Monsieur Mallah declare their love for each other, before being blown to pieces. The rest of the Doom Patrol don’t even make an appearance. You get the impression that this sort of thing happens every other Tuesday. The Doom Patrol is about weirdness, wonder, and imagination, rather than muscle-bound morons punching each other. It uses fiction and the medium of comics as a platform to explore truths and ideas.
The artwork is, by modern standards, pretty basic, although it develops as the series goes on, and the trade paperbacks feature some fantastic cover art. In concept, story, and world-building, Morrison excels. If you’re struggling to make sense of it all, that’s the idea. The real world is confusing, delightful, dark and comedic, and sometimes there is no point. Not all loose ends are wrapped up. It’s messy.
Grant Morrison can be a bit hit and miss, but this early work, in my opinion, shows him at his best. Rather than veering towards melodrama, self-indulgence, or taking classic characters in odd directions, here he just takes what was already present, amplifies and studies it. The Doom Patrol is a perfect vehicle for him. At its heart, Doom Patrol is an anthem for the weird, alienated, dispossessed, forgotten, ignored, and despised. It’s a celebration of the value of the marginalised.
The Doom Patrol aren’t looking to fit in, but they do want to help, especially others like them. Their status as deviants of all kinds is one to be celebrated, for the alternative is grey, tedious, chilling and fascistic conformity. Set against this is wonderful variety and the tenacity and randomness of the human spirit. These aren’t static heroic figures with chiseled jaws carved out of stone, they are human, with human feelings, who respond, yearn, and doubt.
Like the works of Moore, Gaiman, and many others, this is a comic containing big ideas. It is best summed up by the story where Crazy Jane appears in ‘our’ world, is quickly diagnosed, medicated, and assumes a humdrum life of mediocrity. An inner battle plays out in which she, among other things, leads an army of chairs in a glorious but ultimately futile struggle against an overwhelming opponent. She is eventually rescued by her teammates, but in that magical outpost, that fantasy world of unlimited imagination, which manifests itself in Oz, Narnia, and numerous other fictional realms, there is a message of hope. That in the minds, dreams, and imaginations of the outsider, there is a better world, where the amazing and wondrous exists.